Magistrates have been a part of the New South Wales industrial system since the early days of the British colony established in 1788. The first officially appointed Chief Industrial Magistrate was appointed in 1912. Chief Industrial Magistrates have continued to be appointed since that year, and currently, the industrial work of the court is carried out principally by that magistrate, although other magistrates are appointed as Industrial Magistrates on a needs basis.
In certain situations, it was possible under various “Master and Servant Acts” for employees or employers who broke employment contracts to be prosecuted for a breach of the criminal law. More commonly, this was directed at employees, particularly as wealthier employers would also be the local justice of the peace for the locality. Dr Geoffrey Partington outlines an example in 1858 where German masons who were brought to Australia to work on the Victorian railways. The employees broke their contracts after being persuaded to work for another employer. This was due to a shortage in the supply of experienced masons in Australia. The masons were imprisoned as a result of their breach of contract.
The growing maturity of the New South Wales colony led to the employment of permanent paid magistrates. These magistrates were first employed in Sydney Town. However, they gradually replaced all local justices of the peace. Magistrates would in time come to be appointed specially to either being a stipendiary magistrate, children's magistrate, or an industrial magistrate. Industrial magistrates appear to have been first used in New South Wales around 1912. Their authority came from the then Industrial Relations Act 1912 (NSW). A Chief Industrial Magistrate was also appointed, although there was no statutory basis for doing so. The first statutorily appointed one was not until 1986.
Up until 1991, all magistrates were also gazetted as industrial magistrates. The process of gazetting is simply to give a magistrate a dual role or appointment. From 1991, magistrates were automatically appointed as an industrial magistrate under the Industrial Relations Act 1991. In practice, however, all work of an industrial nature was performed by the Chief Industrial Magistrate. In 1996, a new Industrial Act was passed. Under this law, magistrates are now only appointed on a needs basis to assist the Chief Industrial Magistrate in his or her duties.
When considering industrial cases, the industrial magistrate actually constitutes a Local Court rather than a specialised industrial court. Industrial magistrates have both criminal and civil jurisdictions. All the usual laws apply to proceedings in the court. However, in civil proceedings, the procedure of the court is regulated by the Industrial Relations Act rather than the Civil Procedure Act 2005. Certain types of cases may only be dealt with by industrial magistrates. These are cases under the following laws:
Other laws, including federal laws, may empower an Industrial Magistrate to deal with cases. For example, the Australian Government gave power to Industrial Magistrates to deal with matters under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Commonwealth) through the now repealed section 177A. Generally, criminal proceedings are restricted to breaches of safety regulations (for example under the Occupational Health and Safety Act). Civil proceedings are generally restricted to the recovery of unpaid wages or leave by employees against employers. Where the court makes an order in this type of case, the amount of money awarded must be registrered and enforced in the Local Court rather than through an Industrial Court.
In 2002 the court heard a case in which an employee fell off a stage prop he was constructing for the Italian Opera Rinalda at the Sydney Opera House. The employee fell off the three metre high mountain prop he was constructing. Following the incident, a crane and harness was obtained for future prop building. In 2004, the court heard a case of bullying and harassment in the workplace. It was alleged that a new employee underwent an initiation ceremony that involved the employee being wrapped in cling film from neck to ankle, strapped to a trolley and then spun around. The employee's mouth was then stuffed with sawdust and glue and then finally he was sprayed in the face with a firehose. The company concerned was fined $15,000 for the incident.